Battle Against Racism at Bar Fizzles

San Francisco bar owner likely to escape penalty despite findings of bias

The most divisive controversy to rend San Francisco’s gay community in many years started at a brunch, said Don Romesburg, now a spokesman for the activist group “And Castro for All,” at friend Derek Turner’s Castro district home about a year and half ago.

Turner, a recent computer science graduate of Stanford University, had been working as a bartender, and told some of the group that he had seen his boss, Les Natali, the owner of the Badlands Bar in the Castro, turn away job applicants and customers because they were women or blacks.

Over the following months, other friends, acquaintances and soon strangers stepped forward as the group widened their pursuit of stories of personal experiences with Natali. A bouncer at the bar told Turner about how Natali had allegedly given him instructions, as he pointed to a group of black men on the street in front of the bar, that, “Those are not Badlands customers.”

The informal but growing group discovered other witnesses who said Natali discriminated in his admissions practices by asking blacks to produce multiple IDs and, in one case, making a black patron prove he had the money to pay for drinks before entering the bar.

The discussion blossomed from casual, periodic conversations into a major campaign to expose racism in San Francisco’s gay community. The group of friends dubbed themselves “Is Badlands Bad?” and started calling press conferences.

Several months later they changed their name to “And Castro for All,” as they broadened their scope—with Natali and his bar as the centerpiece example, the newly-minted activists said, of just how bad things are.

But today, after marches through the Castro, a murder in the neighborhood that suggested a racial motivation, the death of one of the complainants of HIV, an investigation and sharp rebuke of Natali by San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, an inquiry by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board and weekly pickets in front of Natali’s bar, which sits just half a block from the center of the Castro—it appears that unless either the state or the city takes drastic action, the campaign against racism is about to fade with barely a fizzle.

Because of a technicality in the way the ABC had been investigating the charges—it pegged its investigation to Natali’s purchase of a bar that traditionally served a mixed-race clientele across the street from Badlands, but which the bar owner is now selling—it appears there will be no public hearing on the bias charges, no “day in court” which the activists said they were hoping for and, barring unforeseen twists, probably no serious consequences for Natali.

“It’s highly unlikely they would have a hearing,” said the ABC’s lead attorney John Pierce on Wednesday.

The controversy has percolated up to the highest levels of San Francisco’s city government. Its legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, has weighed in on the issue—against Natali.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has appointed his predecessor, Mayor Willie Brown, to mediate between the complainants, now eight, and Natali. But both sides would have to agree to any settlement, and now absent much threat of action by the city or the state, it seems unlikely to observers that Natali would agree to any settlement beyond what the activists said they would consider unacceptably minor consequences.

“Putting up a few signs and some employee training is just not going to cut it,” said Rosmesburg.

While the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing has started a belated investigation of the situation, the most realistic recourse open to the complainants now is to individually sue Natali, at their own expense.

The argument over Natali’s alleged racism has spawned other controversies. San Francisco’s Castro district has just one black-owned business, a yoga studio for which a city-supported Neighborhood Economic Development Organization provided the seed funding.

Black activists accused the neighborhood merchant group’s president of racism when he cut off a presentation about Badlands at the group’s monthly meeting. Activists said the group, the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC), has done nothing to help encourage black businesses to come to the Castro.

And then things got personal. The dispute roiled down the stairs and onto the sidewalk in front of the group’s meeting room, where one of the activists tried to get the MUMC leaders to agree to a meeting. They refused.

“The reason you won’t,” Calvin Gipson, the activist and past-president of San Francisco’s huge Pride Celebration Committee, charged, “is that you don’t want to touch this black hand.”

The initiative to encourage black businesses to settle in the Castro hasn’t gone anywhere either.

The activists said the process to bring official sanction down on Natali was hobbled by the intervention of San Francisco kingmaker Jack Davis, who headed the campaigns of both former Mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown and was hired as a consultant by Newsom for his run. Davis is a long-time friend of Natali’s, and was the first to enunciate the argument, after the city’s Human Rights Commission found against Natali, that the agency’s investigation, conducted over almost a year, was flawed because Natali wasn’t given the opportunity to cross examine witnesses against him.

“Jack Davis, being who he is, doesn’t leave much of a trail,” fumed Romesburg, “so we’ve been left to speculate how all this happened.”

But Davis doesn’t make any secret of his involvement, said he’s not being paid and that he’s helping Natali because he’s an old friend, who Davis said has been falsely accused.

“I live right up the street, it’s my local,” Davis said of the reason for his interest.

But a more fundamental basis for the problem lie in the city’s demographics.

Housing costs in the city have gone up faster and further than anywhere else in the nation, including New York. So now the city has one of the biggest divides between rich, who can afford the sky-high prices, and poor, who can only live in subsidized housing. Much of the middle class has fled the city, and none more than the city’s black middle class. San Francisco’s black population is down to eight percent, from a high of nearly 20 percent just two decades ago. In the city’s remaining black neighborhoods, “you have families that are disproportionately involved in our systems—juvenile detention, truancy, and unemployment,” said Julian Potter, Newsom’s director of policy and planning, and added, “the middle class fled.”

“It’s a nightmare.”

The bar operating across the street from Badlands that Natali bought and is now selling is called the Pendulum. It was there that the racial tensions abroad in the city may have contributed to a murder last September. A black patron killed a white man who had called him “nigger” in refusing the black man’s request that he put clothes on rather than continue sunbathing in the nude in the bar’s back patio.

In spite of the murder, that establishment remained as one bastion of integration, at least until Natali stepped in. When his purchase fueled a lawsuit from a competing bidder and the ABC investigation, he quickly turned around to sell the club. On Wednesday, just before the sale was final, he closed it, locked the doors and fired most of the employees for what he told them would be a three to four month renovation. An oasis had dried up.

Even with that defeat, Romesburg said the group is not done.

“It’s become something more than just holding one bar owner accountable,” he said. “It’s about seeing if the civil rights apparatus of the city and state work. It’s about seeing which of San Francisco’s elected officials wants to stand in the spotlight and who wants to hide in the shadows.”

“This is about invigorating a national community dialogue on race,” Romesburg continued. “This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. We’re drawing a road map toward a genuinely inclusive society. This is just the beginning.”

“Do you really believe that?” he was asked.

“I do. I really do.”

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